Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said the next BBC licensing fee announcement would be the last – and it was time to discuss new ways to fund and sell “great British content”.
She said “the days when old people were threatened with jail time and bailiffs knocked on doors” were over.
His comments come amid unconfirmed reports that the government is set to freeze the £159 fee for two years.
A BBC source said there had been similar speculation before.
The existence of the license fee is guaranteed until at least December 31, 2027 by the BBC’s Royal Charter, which sets out the funding and purpose of the broadcaster.
The annual fee is then set by the government, which announced in 2016 that it would increase in line with inflation for five years from April 2017.
Money from licensing fees pays for BBC shows and services – including TV, radio, the BBC website, podcasts, iPlayer and apps.
Lengthy negotiations have already taken place between BBC bosses and the government over a future funding deal, with the idea of freezing licensing fees discussed in October.
A government source confirmed that discussions with the BBC over licensing fees were ongoing.
But they said the Culture Secretary recognized the strain on people’s wallets – and the levy was a ‘big bill’ for low-income people and pensioners, which ministers could control.
A BBC source said of the fee freeze: ‘Anything below inflation would put an unacceptable strain on the BBC’s finances after years of cuts.’
They added that there were “very good reasons to invest in what the BBC can do for the British public, the creative industries and the UK globally”.
Previously, Ms Dorries, who was appointed Culture Secretary last September, said she believed the BBC should exist, but needed to be able to compete against rivals such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.
At the Conservative Party Conference in October, Ms Dorries said the broadcaster needed ‘real change’ to represent the whole of the UK and accused it of ‘groupthink’.
The BBC was “a beacon to the world”, she said, but she believed people who rose through the ranks had a similar background, a certain political bias and thought and spoke alike.
Labour’s shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell accused the Prime Minister and Ms Dorries of seeming ‘determined to attack this great British institution because they don’t like its journalism’.
“British broadcasting and our creative industries are renowned around the world and should be at the heart of global Britain,” she said.
In 2020, people over 75 started paying for their TV license, which was previously free.
The funding for this had come from the government, but the responsibility for this policy was given to the BBC after the last funding agreement.
In 2019 Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the BBC should “cough” and pay for TV licenses for everyone over 75, but the BBC said this would force “unprecedented closures” of services. Now only those over 75 with pension credit are eligible for a free licence, paid for by the BBC.
Evasion of the TV license in itself is not an offense punishable by imprisonment. However, the government says failure to pay the fine, following a criminal conviction, could lead to the risk of imprisonment – “a last resort” after other methods of enforcement have failed.
Last year the government decided not to go ahead with plans to decriminalize non-payment of the fee, but said it would “remain actively under consideration”.
And so as the BBC turns 100, a British government officially turns against the licence fee as the best way to fund it.
Nadine Dorries is not arguing against the existence of the BBC, but is now formally opposed to a compulsory levy on households that own a TV. She argues that it potentially criminalises the vulnerable, including the elderly.
Defenders of the licence fee argue it is the least bad mechanism, and moving to a Netflix-style subscription model would force the BBC to serve subscribers rather than be universal.
It comes after lengthy negotiations between the government and the BBC over the future funding settlement.
The actual negotiation over how the BBC is funded after 2027 is still several years away.
Dorries tweeted a link to a Mail on Sunday article suggesting that, amid a cost of living crisis, the fee would be held at £159 for two years – amounting to a real terms cut of billions.
The BBC is also under relentless financial and creative pressure from streaming giants such as Apple and Amazon.
Its future depends above all on whether it can persuade young people to pay for it.